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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Landline - Rainbow Rowell

LandlineWhen I went to pull the cover art for this from Goodreads, a book that I recognized popped up under the "Readers Also Enjoyed" section: Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins.  For a moment, I was perplexed; Isla is a decidedly young adult book and Landline, while not explicit, is definitely aimed at a more adult audience.  But after a bit of reflection, I saw the connection.  Both of these books deal with the building and disassembling of relationships, with life just getting in the way, and of the couple--sometimes one party more than another--striving to make things right, often in each other's absence.

In Landline, Georgie is a comedy writer on the verge of a big break.  She and her long-time writing partner, Seth, have the opportunity to finally create the show they've been working on for nearly two decades.  The problem with this?  They need to do a massive amount of work to get it off the ground, and they need to do it when Georgie is supposed to be going to her mother-in-law's house for Christmas with her husband and two daughters.  Georgie has a habit of putting work before her family, and this is one straw much.  Her husband, Neal, packs up the girls and goes without her, leaving Georgie alone in Los Angeles.  Georgie throws herself into work, but the rift between her and Neal eats away at her, especially because Neal isn't answering her calls.  When her own cellphone dies--as it does whenever it's not plugged in--she calls Neal's mother's house from an old rotary phone she bought while she was still living with her mother, and gets a surprise.  While she can talk to Neal, it's not her Neal that she's talking to--it's Neal from almost two decades ago.  And so Georgie wonders if this is a sign: is she supposed to use her connection to past-Neal to change their relationship before it becomes too late?

This is a sweet novel.  It's set up very well to allow the story to flow while also filling in all of the background information that you really need in order to emotionally connect with the characters.  The current timeline is interspersed with long periods of Georgie thinking about earlier times in the relationship--not necessarily flashbacks, because they still read like real narrative, but definitely backstory.  This lets us see how Neal and Georgie have changed as time went on, and how they've come to grow apart, as well as how they used to--and still do--fit together.

I will have to say, though, that I'm not entirely satisfied with the ending here.  The "magical phone to the past" thing is never explained--possibly because how do you explain something like that, but still, I would have liked a stab at it.  And then...I'm not necessarily sure that Georgie and Neal should be together, and the sickly-sweetness of the ending turned my stomach a little.  I think I would have liked a more bittersweet ending on this one; it would have fit the overall tone of the novel better.  One of those "I hate it but I love it" endings, you know?  Anyway, I did really like this overall; it's a light, fast read, but one that still had plenty of emotion, and I'd definitely read Rowell's other books.

4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Seduction of Sophie Seacrest - Mary Campisi (An Unlikely Husband #1)

The Seduction of Sophie Seacrest (An Unlikely Husband, #1)This was a terribly frustrating historical romance.  I did not like it.  Here's why.

It's about Holt, a long-vanished heir to an earldom that has returned after his father's death.  However, he's not yet sure that he wants to take his position as earl.  What he does want to do is mend the rift between his family and the Seacrests; currently they're in the midst of a feud that might very well destroy Holt's family's business.  On his first day out and about, though, he runs into Sophie and they immediately have a tryst--though no sex.  And so Holt gets sucked into her charm...

I feel like Campisi didn't know where she wanted the plot of this to go.  It starts out like the feud is going to be a central point of the plot when Holt's brother alleges the Seacrest family has paid people to burn several of Holt's family's ships.  Holt immediately inserts himself into the Seacrest family as a business partner, and helps them mend the business.  The feud is never really mentioned again.  Instead, a different feud emerges--one that alleges that Holt's mother and Sophie's father had an affair, and that is what has caused the argument.  And then there's some lady creeping around in the shadows--but not until two-thirds of the way through the book--who wants Holt for herself for some really weird reasons.  And then there's a bunch of other convoluted stuff going on that seems like it wants to be Jane Eyre-gothic but instead it just comes across as muddled and confused.

Sophie was sweet, Holt made me want to punch him.  He claims that Sophie can't be a virgin, because no virgin reacts to amorous situations like she does.  He says mean, hateful things and then just abandons her after coercing her into marrying him.  And then, just a few pages later, he's all possessive and he loves her and blah-blah-blah.  He's a psycho.  Which, given his mother, makes sense.  Geeze.

The pacing here was also very strange.  It goes from zero to sixty and back to zero--nothing happens, and then there's suddenly a tryst with no build up at all, and then they're back to almost ignoring each other until the next tryst, which again comes out of nowhere.  And once everything seems like it's resolved, it feels like Campisi felt like the book just wasn't long enough, so she tacked another plot onto the end which hadn't really been present throughout the rest of the book.  And then there's Francie!  Why was she even included?  She had no impact on the plot at all; the process and outcome were exactly the same as they would have been if she hadn't been featured at all.  And why did every appearance of hers have to feature her having sex with her husband?  I get it, it's a historical romance and those are known for their steamy scenes, but it seems that the focus of those should have remained on the main couple (and those scenes were pretty good!), not some superfluous extras that were just tacked on to the side.

This book was a hot mess.  I liked Jason and would like to know his story, but I don't think I'm quite intrigued enough to brave Campisi's plot constructions again.

1.5 to 2 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Delicious! - Ruth Reichl

Delicious!
When Billie Breslin moves to New York after dropping out of college, she interviews for the position of executive assistant to the editor of Delicous! which is one of the oldest food magazines in the business.  She's ecstatic to get the job and move into the world of food writing, because it's common knowledge that the editor gives his assistants writing assignments.  However, her dream comes crashing down all too soon when Delicious! is shut down.  Everyone is let go--everyone except Billie, who's left behind to maintain the Delicious! Guarantee, which is that every recipe works or your money back.  Alone in the massive Timbers Manor, Billie answers letters and phone calls relating to the guarantee and explores the long-locked library, where she and a former coworker discover a store of letters from WWII that open a whole new world of knowledge.  Meanwhile, Billie works weekends at an Italian specialty food store and interacts with a host of other colorful characters.

I really, really liked this book.  I'm not normally a huge fan of first-person narratives, but I found Billie very personable and thought it was easy to connect with her.  Figuring out the whole Genie thing was an intriguing little side mystery--you can tell something's up there, but there are a few possibilities and it's not glaringly obvious which one is the real answer until it's actually brought up.  I was able to piece together some of it, but not all of it.  I enjoyed the side characters, too.  Sal, Rosalie, Mr. Complainer/Mitch, Sammy...all of them were great.  They all had distinct personalities and roles, and while they were all supporting characters, they really did lend support instead of just being there for no apparent reason.

There's a mystery here, but it's not a murder/suspense mystery.  Instead, it's a quirky little historical mystery, one that's cute instead of nerve-wracking.  I don't really enjoy reading letters in novels, but most of the ones included in Delicious! were short enough to not be trying on the nerves.  The letter-mystery plot did feel like it was originally intended to go in a different direction, but didn't, which left me feeling a little disjointed.  And I wish that more of the recipes that had been mentioned were included!  The recipe for Billie's gingerbread cake, which features throughout the book, is included in the back, but none of the other delicious-sounding (Delicious.  Hahahaha.) recipes were listed.  Still, this was a book that I couldn't put down, because it was just good.  Wholesome, enjoyable, with a great cast of characters, a minor love story (nothing to impede the plot, just to boost it) and a little bit of mystery--just enough to keep it intriguing.

4 solid stars out of 5!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Wives of Los Alamos - Tarashea Nesbit

The Wives of Los AlamosThis seems to be a contentious book for one reason and one reason only: it's written in first-person plural.  Pretty much every review about it begins that way, and if I had read them before I requested the book from the library, I probably wouldn't have picked it up.  It doesn't have a solid core narrative.  It doesn't have real, distinct characters; different women are mentioned by name at several points, but no one is ever really given the chance to develop because of the amorphous "we" talking about "our" sometimes contradictory experiences.  I understand why this device was used; it's supposed to give you a feel for the lives of the women of Los Alamos as a whole, instead of just picking or making up one or two to flesh out more fully and stand in for the rest.  It's meant to capture a wider range of experiences.  Is it successful?  I didn't really think so.  Some of the women are so obviously outsiders that they're clearly not contained within the "we," and that means that their experiences are completely left out of the book. 

Each chapter has a theme, such as "Children" or "Foreigners," and the snippets that compose each chapter--because each chapter is composed of a series of one-paragraph snippets, instead of a more traditional narrative--adhere to that theme.  It's a sort of experimental style, and while some people loved it, I didn't.  I didn't hate it.  I did hate it to begin with, but as with most writing, I got used to it after a while, and it didn't grate on my nerves so much.  But I never really liked it, and was left feeling like Nesbit could have offered a much richer picture of Los Alamos if she had just been fuller in her telling.  I guess that's just my preference; I like books with real characters and central narratives, even if those narratives don't move quickly and are more character-driven than anything else.  An amorphous, ever-changing central figure who isn't even one figure but a conglomerate of many left me feeling like I was reading about a hive mind, which is kind of demeaning to a group of women who no doubt went through a lot of hardships to support their husbands.

By choosing the narrative style she did, Nesbit avoided a great deal of detail.  This probably saves her from being savaged by people who are sticklers for historical accuracy, but I felt it distanced me more than intrigued me, and I felt left out more than anything else.  A novel needs to draw readers in and connect them with the characters, and I felt that wasn't accomplished here; looking at other reviews, some people clearly disagree, but hey, that's the nature of personal preferences, and I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on this one.  To me, this was an okay book, with a really good premise--I feel like these women haven't had a lot of historical fiction written about them, and they are truly fascinating subjects--but it just fell flat because of its strange delivery.  Experimental styles, I feel, are sometimes better left to subjects that have already been widely explored in more traditional mediums, as then the new style brings a new light to the subject.  I'm not sure this particular subject, these women and this place and time, were quite ready for being experimented with before we were better acquainted.

2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Popsugar Reading Challenge Updates!

Hellooooo out there!  Since the last time we've chatted about this, I've knocked out a few more categories in the Popsugar 2015 Reading Challenge.  You can view my original progress here.  Since then, I've finished the following categories, and updated a few more that are still to go!

Completed
-A book a friend recommended.  My friend Vilhelmina tore through Sarah J. Maas' A Court of Thorns and Roses a few weeks ago, and when I saw that she'd rated it pretty highly, I said I'd have to read it soon--to which she gave an emphatic Yes so that we could discuss it!  I liked it, a lot, but it left me a little bit nervous about the next book in the series.

-A book that made you cry.  This was, unintentionally, How To Start a Fire.  Oh, Malcolm...

-A book you own but have never read.  As I intended, I finished this one with The Martian, reading it after owning it for about six months without ever reading it.  It's very realistic science fiction, a great intro to the genre for those who are interested in the concept but find the more space-opera-y stories too out there.

-A book based on or turned into a TV show.  Again, as intended, I read Dead Until Dark, the book that started the series that became the HBO show TrueBlood.  One of my absolute favorite books, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, is the novelization of a mini-series of the same name that Gaiman worked on, but I wanted to include all new books in this challenge (with the exception of a book from my childhood) so I had to go for something a little different.

-A book set somewhere you've always wanted to visit.  I hadn't decided on something to fill this category originally, but I've decided to use The Signature of All Things for it.  This boot is set partially in Tahiti, a place I would love to visit--and I disliked the book so much that I figure I might as well get something out of it, so I'm counting it for this category.


With those out of the way, it leaves a few (well, a bunch) of categories still to be filled...

Still To Go
-A classic romance.  I picked up Anna Karenina at a used bookstore a while back, so I'm going to use that one.

-A book that became a movie.  I'll be filling this one with The Monuments Men, which has been on my Kindle for ages but I haven't opened yet.  I don't actually read a lot of books that become movies, so this one was a harder category to find a candidate for.

-A book written by someone under 30.  Oh, this was a hard one to find a candidate for, because all of the authors I thought were really young are actually older than I thought!  Oi.  So, very reluctantly, I have decided to take up Veronica Roth's Divergent.  I've avoided it until now, but now it seems to have become unavoidable.

-A popular author's first book.  I wanted to go with a big author for this one, and because Terry Pratchett died recently, I've settled on The Carpet People.

-A book from an author you love but haven't read yet.  Well, I absolutely adore Tamora Pierce, but for some reason I haven't read Battle Magic yet, so that will fill this category.

-A Pulitzer Prize-winning book.  Like pretty much everyone else out there, I'm going to knock this one out with All the Light We Cannot See.

-A book based on a true story.  I think I'm going to go with Seabiscuit for this one.  I think that counts.  The "based on" bit confuse me somewhat.

-A book at the bottom of your to-read list.  My to-read list is in a constant state of flux and doesn't really have a concrete "bottom," so at some point I'll just pick the most recently added book (which is, by default, at the bottom) and read that.

-A book your mom loves.  As my mother drunkenly told an Australian tourist while we were in Venice for my sister's wedding, her favorite book is The Thorn Birds, so I guess I'll be reading that for this category!

-A book that scares you.  I have no idea for this one, honestly.  Horror books don't actually scare me, so I think I might have to go with some nonfiction that's terrifyingly true.  We'll see where that goes.

-A book more than 100 years old.  Well, common domain books make this easy, and I think I'll continue my study of the classics with 20000 Leagues Under the Sea.

-A book you were supposed to read in school but didn't.  I was a good student and read the books I was assigned, and I could only think of one exception that wasn't an actual textbook: Affairs of Honor.  It's apparently about early congressmen, senators, etc. being bitchy to each other, so it shouldn't be too bad of a read.

-A book with antonyms in the title.  I honestly don't know.  I'll have to look for something, nothing comes to mind right away.

-A book that came out the year you were born.  I looked up a list of books published in 1991 and discovered that's the year that Outlander was originally published in that year!  This is great, because I recently bought the entire series when it was obscenely cheap on Amazon a couple of weeks ago.

-A book with bad reviews.  I haven't decided yet on this one, either, but I'm dreading it...

-A book from your childhood.  The obvious one that comes to mind is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.  This might finally give me the excuse to order that new box set I've been eyeing up...

-A book with a love triangle.  I've gotta fill this one with Endless Knight, Kresley Cole's sequel to Poison Princess.  I loved Princess (review here), but haven't cracked Endless yet.  But it has definitely got a love triangle.

-A book set in high school.  Pretty sure that Perks of Being a Wallflower is going to flesh out this category.  I kind of hate books set in high school, but Perks is supposed to be great, so I hope it won't let me down!

-A graphic novel.  Sharaz-de is a graphic novel inspired by 1001 Arabian Nights, and I've been eyeing it up for a while now.  Plus, Scheherazade is pretty much my favorite fairy tale ever.

-A book that takes place in your hometown.  Well, despite some Googling, I couldn't find anything that takes place in Erie, PA, so I'm going with my second hometown here.  I'll be reading The Dressmaker, which, according to my research, takes place at least partially in Washington, DC.

-A play.  I haven't decided on this yet, though I'll probably keep it basic and do Shakespeare.

-A banned book.  Well, books in the US are never actually banned by the government, but according to a list of frequently challenged books, The Kite Runner fits this category.  I read A Thousand Splendid Suns, also by Hosseini, several years ago and liked it, so this should be a good contender.

-A book you started but never finished.  I swear to year, this is the year I finally take down Vellum, which I have started multiple times but have never been able to complete.  But this time, I will do it!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris (Southern Vampire Mysteries #1)

Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse, #1)I admit it.  I only read this book because it fulfilled a category for the Popsugar 2015 Reading Challenge--a book that was turned into a TV series.  I briefly considered Wizard's First Rule, which was turned into the brief-lived "Sword of Truth" series, but that book starts off a series that seems to never end, and if I liked the book I wanted there to be an end in sight, so it got discarded in favor of Dead Until Dark.  Which...isn't my type of book at all.  Unfortunately.  Vampire romances always kind of skeeve me out, because I mean, necrophilia, anyone?  Gross on so many levels.  But this had been turned into TrueBlood, so off I went to fulfill the category.

It was okay.

The plot, in a large sense, isn't half bad.  The story takes place at some point in time after vampires have "come out of the coffin" and are now public knowledge to pretty much the entire world.  Sookie Stackhouse lives in a small town in Louisiana and dreams of seeing a vampire, just to mix things up.  One night, she gets her wish.  Vampire Bill Compton shows up at Merlotte's the bar where Sookie works, and she ends up saving his life from a couple of people who want to drain his blood to sell as drugs.  From there on, Bill and Sookie are very closely linked, and you can probably guess the rest.  However, a string of murders is occurring in Bon Temps, and Sookie might be on the list--if she can't use her telepathic abilities to find the killer first.  Oh, and every vampire (and shape-shifter...and most humans...) wants a piece of her, too.

I wasn't a huge fan of Harris' writing style, which was very tell-y for a good chunk of the book, and I had some issues with Sookie as a main character.  First, she falls into the category of "pretty much everyone loves me for no real reason."  She's  nice girl, sure, and pretty, but almost every man in the book feels a need to drool all over her every time she turns around.  This got very old, very fast, especially because a few characters (JB, anyone?) existed simply to confirm how attractive Sookie was to everyone she met.  And over the course of the book, she only gets more attractive.  Dear lord, this girl has to be a goddess by the end of the series.  Second, Sookie had some weird vibes going on with other women--like she needlessly hated them but wanted to act like she didn't.  Anyone who remotely looked at a man other than Sookie and her friend Arlene was pretty much immediately deemed a slut (and Arlene, having been married several times, seems to be treading the slut-line in Sookie's head) and anyone who is attracted to vampires is not only a slut but a fang-banger, which seems like an awfully derogatory term for Sookie to be using (even if other people use it) considering that she's dating a vampire for most of the book and the relationship is most decidedly not celibate.  Third, she also has this weird balance of wanting Bill to be a complete old-fashioned gentleman but not wanting him to treat her like she's super fragile and all that--when she is compared to him.  Sookie is a frustrating woman, and it made her hard to empathize with, even if I didn't actively dislike her.  It's a woman's prerogative to change her mind, but it's everyone else's prerogative to not put up with her shit when she continues to do so beyond all reason.

I also didn't find the "romance" here particularly romantic.  It was just kind of...meh.  I didn't think that Sookie and Bill had any real chemistry on the page, and felt that many other paranormal authors (Rachel Caine comes to mind immediately) did the romance aspects of their books much better.

Overall, this was okay.  I liked it, kind of, but I doubt I'll be reading the rest of them.

2.5 to 3 stars.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Frangipani Hotel - Violet Kupersmith

The Frangipani HotelIf you've been reading this blog somewhat regularly, you might have noticed I've struggled with short stories recently.  I've gone through a slew of collections that left me feeling like I just wasn't getting it, and I often pondered just giving up on short-form literature entirely.  But then I'd remember several collections that I really, really liked (The Civilized WorldWhat the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, and The Thing Around Your Neck immediately come to mind) so I persisted.  I kept reading those collections, even though they left me so frustrated.  And now, now it has all paid off, because I found another collection that I really, really enjoyed.

The Frangipani Hotel reminded me a great deal of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.  The latter has supernatural or paranormal occurrences spattered throughout--nothing massive, but just enough to rise the hairs on the back of the characters' necks and let you know that not everything is quite what it seems, that there are monsters lurking under the bed and on every street corner.  As one character says, "Our muddy patch of the world was already shadowy and blood-soaked and spirit-friendly long before the Americans got here.  There's ancient and ugly things waiting to harm you in that darkness.  Yes, of course they're there in daylight, to--they're just harder to spot" (80).

Let me be clear: these are not scary stories.  They will not have you checking under the bed and booby-trapping your closet door before you go to sleep.  However, they are creepy because they show the skewed perceptions people can have of the world around them, and how something that seems like it's one thing can very easily be something completely different.  I really loved that aspect.  Some of them are creepier than others; "The Frangipani Hotel" and "Little Brother" were definitely a little more out-there than "Guests," for example.  In "The Frangipani Hotel," a strange girl shows up who isn't officially staying at the hotel, and she's perpetually thirsty--and possibly far older than she seems.  In "Little Brother," a man agrees to give a ride to a dying boy, only to be warned by a nurse not to talk to the passenger--and if he must talk, don't tell the boy his name.  Both of these contained distinct notes of menace that were largely absent in "Guests," where the strangest things that happen are a coincidence with a cat and a messed-up manicure.  But story collections always vary in quality, and the misses here weren't total flops.  They didn't really impact my enjoyment of the collection as a whole.

Oh, one more thing--this collection is focused around Vietnam.  Some of the stories take place there, some of them take place in the US but focus on characters who are Vietnamese or Vietnamese-American.  I don't really know anything about Vietnamese mythology, so I have no authority on the subject of whether or not these have any real "authenticity" about them, but I really enjoyed them.  They have a good feel to them, and they don't require a lot of outside knowledge in order to be understood.  They didn't leave me feeling stupid or like I didn't get it.  They're not meant to be "brainy," which I feel is a common problem with short stories--the authors feel like they have to prove something, and the stories come off pretentious as a result.  That wasn't the case here.  These were just good, and accessible to the average reader.  They don't require an entire college literature course to break them down and understand them.  Some of them--most of them, really--leave the climactic action off the page, after the end of the story, leaving you to imagine the menaces waiting after the words end.  That's probably a good stylistic choice--what's scarier than your own imagination, after all?

I highly recommend this one.  The stories are creepy but not scary, and very easy to read.  I devoured this just like Thuy devoured her banh mi.

4 stars out of 5.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

After the End - Amy Plum (After the End #1)

After the End (After the End, #1)I really need to start reading book descriptions again before I dive into the book, because when I opened this one I once again found myself in a book that was not anything I thought it would be--a situation that could have been easily avoided if I had read the description.  After the End starts off like any old post-apocalyptic book.  Juneau is living in Alaska, one of the last "clean" places on Earth after the nuclear apocalypse of World War III.  She and her clan live in peace, but fear marauders who might come in from outside and ruin everything they've worked so hard to protect.  Juneau is also in training to become a sort of shawoman for her clan.  And then, her clan is suddenly kidnapped, leaving Juneau with just her dogs, her skills, and some supplies.  She sets out to find and rescue her people, only to find something else entirely--World War II never happened, there was no nuclear apocalypse, and she's been living a lie her entire life.  And now she's on the run because people are hunting her down, wanting something she has but might not even know about.

The book alternates between Juneau's point of view and that of Miles, the son of the guy who wants to catch Juneau.  Miles sets out to find her in order to get back in his father's good graces, and the two quickly end up on a road trip in search of Juneau's clan--she won't go to Miles' father until her family is found.  This is definitely a road-trip style book.  There is a lot of driving, and there's not always a lot going on during the driving.  The interspersing of supernatural or paranormal events helps; Juneau uses her skills as a shawoman to decide which way they're going and to evade pursuers.  It's made a little more difficult by the fact that Miles, reasonably, thinks that Juneau is off-her-rocker crazy.  You can't really blame him.  In fact, I think Plum did a good job with Miles' incredulity toward Juneau.  It's always a bit challenging to believe that an ordinary person suddenly finds themselves surrounded by the paranormal and just goes with it, with only a cursory nod towards disbelief.  But all this drawing out does mean that Miles and Juneau can't really make any progress until quite far into the book--almost at the end, really.  (But certainly not after it!  Ha. Ha. Ha.)

There's another aspect of this I really liked, and that was Juneau's self-doubt.  I thought it was handled very well.  The poor girl has just realized that everything she knew her entire life is a lie, and she's having difficulty coping.  She's not a complete nincompoop--she knows about things like planes and TV and stuff, she's just very leery of it, and some newer things like iPhones are beyond her ken, but she adapts well to that.  But her doubt about her life directly impacts her abilities, and watching her struggled to regain her faith--in herself and others--and control her powers once more was an interesting character arc--though again, it means that a lot of the real happening takes place very late in the book.

The book also ends at a really weird spot.  I mean, what happens directly following the end is pretty obvious, so I don't see why Plum didn't continue a couple more pages and just finish the sequence off.  It's not a solid enough spot to be a satisfying ending and it's not nerve-wracking enough to be a cliffhanger, so it just comes off as a weird spot to finish up.

I definitely want to read the second book, Until the Beginning, but I hope it improves upon the pacing problems that this one had.  And that we find out what happened to the dogs!

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Martian - Andy Weir

The MartianI am probably one of the last people on the planet to read this book.  Well, that's not true.  Once the movie comes out a lot more people will read it.  But I am probably one of the last people on the planet who noticed this before it became a big hotshot movie starring Matt Damon to read this book.  Whew.  What a mouthful.  Anyway, as most people probably know, The Martian is the story of astronaut Mark Watney, a member of the third expedition to go to Mars, who accidentally gets left behind when the rest of his crew leaves.  To be fair to the rest of the crew, they think he's dead--and honestly, he probably should be, but he's not, and now he has to figure out how to stay alive until someone can rescue him.  And then there are the people on Earth, who have to figure out how to do the rescuing.

Parts of this book are written in first person, in the form of Watney's log on Mars.  Others are in third person, covering the folks on Earth and on the Hermes spaceship, where the rest of Watney's crewmates are.  Occasionally there is even a third-person bit focusing on Watney himself.  It's a strange melding of perspectives, but it works, mostly.

Let me divert a bit.  I've had this book for ages but hadn't read it until this past week.  My boyfriend, however, did read it--a rare instance when he gets around to a book before me.  He found Watney "insufferable."  He thought Weir made Watney try to be too funny, and it came off as annoying.  Many other people disagree with view; they find Watney very funny.  I found myself squarely in the middle.  To me, Watney came off as a guy who isn't really that funny, but tries to use humor--successfully or not--as a way of diverting stress, which is pretty common.  I thought it was a necessary character trait, because if his way of dealing with stress had been to just shut down (a la yours truly) then this would have been a very, very short book.  There was one main exception to this, though: those third person chunks that focused on Watney.  There weren't many of them, and they weren't long, but at those points I found him insufferable, because it was at those points--and not when Watney himself was narrating--that Weir resorted to descriptions of fist-pumping and celebration dances that were more annoying than anything else.  Other than the very end, I think the third-person Watney segments were pretty much completely unnecessary.

There's one other main complaint I have about this book, and it's that I feel it has a lack of dramatic tension.  Here's the thing: Weir isn't George R. R. Martin.  He doesn't kill characters just to watch readers writhe in outrage.  Which means that, from the very beginning, you know that Watney is going to get off Mars.  After all, why write the whole book just to have a rescue go bad in the last four pages and have him die?  There wouldn't be much point to that.  The result is that, while the survival aspect of the book is very interesting, it's pretty much the only draw.  There's some tension of "will this work or won't it" but you know that, even if it doesn't work, something else will.  It's like the movie version of the Apollo 13 incident: as terrifying as it must have been in the moment, when you're watching the movie, you know they're gonna live.  (Except if you were one of the viewers who found the movie "too unrealistic" because apparently "no one would have survived" that scenario.  These people do exist.  They probably also believe Apollo 11 never landed on the moon.)

I think there's also a difficulty with pacing in this book, but I'm not sure how to get around it.  The fact of the matter is, this book takes place over a long amount of time--more than a year.  Which is a heck of a long time to be stuck on Mars.  But because of the way it's written, with skips in time, it feels like a much shorter period.  I'm not sure how I would have recommended fixing this, and I think it's a common problem in books that take place over a long span of time.  Pacing is, I think, one of the most difficult parts of writing, and when you're writing something that doesn't necessarily have action happening every single step of the way, it can get tricky.

Still, the survival aspects of this were awesome, and as most people have said, it's a very scientifically-accurate science-fiction book, which is one of the reasons it's so popular.  I liked it, found it interesting, and also found it easy to follow, even though I have pretty much zero scientific knowledge myself.  It worked, and I think the realism of the scenarios and solutions really helped propel this into the star that is has become.  I'm certainly looking forward to the movie, and I think this is a great intro to science fiction to those who are a little leery of the genre because of how weird it can get.

3.5 to 4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

American Innovations - Rivka Galchen

American Innovations: StoriesThis is an odd book.  Collections of short stories tend to be odd in some sort of way, but this one is particularly odd, partly because of the nature of the stories and party because of the unevenness of the collection.  Some of the stories have a hint of the possible paranormal about them; in one, a woman watches her furniture walk away on its own.  Some of them seem to lack any real point or driving motive, such as the one that's basically just an accounting of how a mother and daughter bought and sold things.  Some are first person, some are third.  Some have narrators that may or may not be unreliable, leaving me with the vague, nagging sense that all the narrators might be unreliable and Galchen was just having a giggle at my expense.  It's not that great of a feeling.  There's an overall feeling in these stories that something is just off, for a reason that you can't quite put your finger on, and some of the title/story combinations made me feel like I was missing something massive, though even after a good deal of reflection I can't figure out what that missing aspect was.  The sense of disconnection that the main characters of the stories feel with everyone around them is a recurring theme, but it also makes them somewhat alien to me, the reader.  In the end, I wasn't taken in to a single one of these stories, but was left on the outside looking in, and that's not the best place for a reader to be.

2 stars out of 5.

Harvard Square - Andre Aciman

Harvard SquareIn the wake of reading this book, I just had to go back to the description on Goodreads and give it another once-over, because, quite frankly, I didn't find it all that it's cracked up to be.  According to the big bold print at the top of the description, Harvard Square is "A powerful tale of love, friendship, and becoming American in late ’70s Cambridge" and according to the text at the bottom, "It is the book that will seal AndrĂ© Aciman’s reputation as one of the finest writers of our time."  I didn't find this book to be either of those things.  A few things I did find it: tedious, pretentious, boring, and just overall not dazzling.  I'm confused as to how these descriptions ended up attached to Harvard Square and not, with a few adjustments for time and place, attached to the far superior Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie.  Both Harvard and Americanah deal with the trials and tribulations of scholarship and immigration and relationships, but only one of them does so in an emotionally gripping way, and it isn't Harvard.

I think the main problem with Harvard Square is the main character and narrator.  He's nameless, which isn't an issue.  He's also meant to juxtapose the other central character of the story, Kalaj, which also isn't an issue in and of itself.  What is an issue is that, in pouring so much spirit into Kalaj, it feels like the narrator is just empty in comparison.  He's a watery echo of Kalaj.  The narrator describes Kalaj as another version of himself, if he hadn't had connections and hope in the process of immigrating to America from Africa (the narrator is from Egypt, and Kalaj is from Tunisia, both by way of France) but that comparison doesn't really hold any emotion because the narrator is kind of a jerk who, although he describes Kalaj as the most precious person in the world to him at one point, doesn't lift a finger to help him or even acknowledge his struggle, and is glad to have him out of his life at the first opportunity.  The hypocrisy is absolutely astounding, especially in reflection in later years.  There are some bits of nice writing, but overall the narrative was just so blah that nice writing couldn't really compensate.

Quite frankly, I don't have that much to say about this one.  I feel like it's been done, and done better, despite the high praise this book was gotten from other people.  If you want to read about the student immigrant experience with a real, human heart and more dimension, go read Americanah.  This one just falls flat.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Redemption - H. J. Bradley

RedemptionOkay, so let's establish genre first, so you know what you're getting into before reading the rest of this review: this is modern-based alternate-universe Earth, where every country mentioned (both real and fictional) is ruled by some sort monarchy.  Oh, and it's a romance/erotica.

Valto is part of the royal family of Finland, but he's like eleventh in line for the throne--no chance of taking it any time soon.  The love of his life is Cat, the crown princess of Wales who's set to be crowned in just over a year--as long as she's married first.  But there's a problem.  Valto broke up with Cat years ago because he thought she was cheating on him.  He has since learned she wasn't, but she pretty much hates his guts now, even if she's willing to marry him to secure to the future of her country.  Awkward...  As the title would suggest, the book is about Valto winning his way back into Cat's heart, even though he may have never really left it.

This is a good romance.  It has a strong central conflict, with Cat caring for Valto but not being sure she wants to open herself up to letting him hurt her again.  It has good sex scenes.  It's also got people in various configurations of non-monogamous-hetero relationships, which I know are the focus of some of Bradley's other stories; Prince of Ice has been on my Kindle for ages, but I just haven't gotten to it yet.  Anyway, because of all this, it's easy to see this is a series where the side characters feature prominently in their own books, and that's honestly my favorite kind of series, way above stories that directly follow each other.  Major kudos for that one.  The plot's resolved neatly, though the "climax" (in a plot sense, not a sexual sense--hehehe) is a little short-lived and could have been drawn out a bit more for dramatic tension.  Overall, I really enjoyed this and look forward to reading Bradley's other work...

...but it needs some editing.  Bradley's grasp of comma usage is shaky at best, and comma splices abound in this.  She consistently capitalizes words that don't require capitalization and has numerous instances of jumbled sentences that were clearly intended to make sense, but just slipped through the editing process.  This isn't to slam her writing ability; she's a very, very good author, but she's at her best when she's dealing with short, succinct sentences.  When she tries to get more elaborate, things tend to get a bit dicey.  But that's what good editors are for.  She needs one.  I understand that editing is a costly process, and can be very difficult when you're self-publishing, but it's absolutely vital that a book be well-polished when it goes to press.  She also needs a book designer; the digital formatting of this is awful, which might be due to a number of factors but I would put my money on Amazon's manuscript-to-digital-copy conversion tool, which is notoriously horrible at formatting digital books.  The interior of this is set up in a blog format: paragraphs that aren't indented, but are instead separated up by line breaks.  It makes it a little hard for the eye to follow.  In the grand scheme of things, these aren't huge issues, but they do get in the way of making Redemption look like a polished product, despite the absolutely gorgeous cover and strong grasp of characters and plot.  If these issues had been nonexistent, I could easily see Bradly being published by a major house, or at least see myself thinking she was published by a major house; as it is, though, she's firmly in self-published land.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Oceanswept - Lara Hays (Oceanswept #1)

OceansweptLet me tell you, if I ever publish a novel, I want to talk to Lara Hays' cover artist, because that cover is gorgeous.  It perfectly encapsulates the type of book I was hoping Oceanswept was: a historical romance with a hefty helping of adventure.  In reality, Oceanswept tried to be the historical romance with a hefty helping of adventure, but I'm not completely certain that it succeeded.

The plot follows Tessa, a young woman who is moving to St. Kitt's from London, where her admiral father has been transferred.  Their ship is caught in a hurricane, and Tessa is forced overboard and slips beneath the water.  When she comes to, she's in a cabin on a pirate ship--though she doesn't immediately realize it's a pirate ship--and in the care of one Nicholas, an officer on said ship.  The rest of her own ship appears to have been lost, including her father.  The captain of the ship is a man named Black with evil red eyes, and Tessa quickly becomes a point of contention on the ship.

The book jacket (is it still a book jacket if the book is digital?) description is misleading.  It mentions that a mutiny is brewing, and one is--but that's only the first part of the book, and here enters the book's main flaw.  It doesn't have good pacing.  I saw a chart a few weeks ago that perfectly captured how a book should be paced, balancing plot and sub-plot.  Basically, the plot should have a series of peaks and valleys, and during the valleys the sub-plots should have peaks.  All of them should rise at the same rate and come together during the climax.  Hays doesn't do that at all.  There's really no sub-plot to speak of; some might say that its the relationship between Nicholas and Tessa, but to that I say HA! because it's not really a sub-plot because it's clear they're going to be together from the beginning and there's not really any tension in between them.  As soon as they decide they like each other, they decide that they'll be together, and that's it for that.  So, there's the mutiny plot on the boat, which rises, climaxes, ends...and then there's a long period of what's really nothingness.  Tessa's by herself, doing some work, but there's nothing really developing.  And then Nicholas shows up again, and there's so much more nothing of them all being happy-go-lucky but nothing happening, and then there's another burst of plot at the end.  This structure means that chunks of the book just dragged as I played the waiting game, not knowing when something else would develop.

Tessa was also annoying as a main character.  She's pretty much useless--a kicking-and-clawing variety of heroine.  Not every heroine has to go around toting a crossbow and slaying vampires, but if they don't, it's nice to see them possess a brain and not be completely subject to the whims of the hero.  Tessa...doesn't really possess a brain.  Hays tries to establish her a strong individual with the "girl time on the island" segment, but it doesn't really work, and she goes right back to being a complete follower who doesn't really possess the will or brainpower to do anything on her own.  Combined with the problems with pacing, Tessa's character made this book hard to read at times.

It took me days to slog through this, and I feel like Hays could have--and maybe should have--cut large portions of the book without it suffering.  I doubt I'll be picking up the sequel; the future plot seems pretty obvious, and without any real conflict brewing between the two main characters, I don't see anything there to bring me back.

2 stars out of 5.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Obituary Society - Jessica Randall (Obituary Society #1)

The Obituary SocietyDon't let the cover fool you on this one--it's no sugar-sweet chick-lit novel about a group of ladies talking about obituaries.  A group of ladies talking about obituaries does appear, but they're not really the focus.  No, the focus is something completely different--a girl who just moved to her grandfather's home town to deal with his estate following his death, and who finds that her family history there is a little darker than she thought...and that it's haunting her to this day.

This was a great book.  The main character is Lila, who takes on the task of renovating her grandfather's long-abandoned home while staying with her great aunt Ada.  The longer she stays, the more involved she becomes with the town's other inhabitants including Gladys, one of Ada's best friends; Max, Gladys' grandson, and his quirky daughter Juniper; Asher, the handsome cinnamon-scented lawyer who offers to help Lila with her grandfather's house and estate; and a host of other minor characters who all lend Auburn its small-town charm.  But beneath all the sweet cakes and savory "Rocky Mountain oysters," there's a bit of menace about Lila's stay in Auburn, and when someone else turns up dead, it looks like Lila is in far more trouble than a few rusty pipes and bad wires might merit.

Randall did a great job with the town of Auburn, making it seem like a real, charming place--though it came across to me as more southern that midwestern.  Still, with church auctions and harvest festivals, Auburn was a cute place full of quirky residents, and felt very genuine.  The characters had their own quirks and personalities and while not all of them fulfilled vital plot functions, none of them felt outright superfluous, which can be a problem with minor characters.  As it was, Auburn felt very complete, and its presence went toward motivating Lila to stay, rather than just serving as a random place in the "stories have to take place somewhere, so this one will take place here" vein.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, because I don't want to spoil anything, but there were a few slight (SLIGHT!) issues I had with this one that I think I can touch on pretty easily:

-It needs a few more line edits.  There are a bunch of cases of missing quotation marks, line breaks that make things more confusing, etc. that could easily be done away with, but overall it's very well edited for a self-published title.

-I didn't really see a point in Erica's character.  I think tension with Max and Lila could have been built very easily without her coming back into the picture, and her involvement in the plot came across as a bit contrived.

-There's an element of supernatural here.  I didn't dislike it, but it did seem a bit out of place in the story because there's really never any explanation given for it.  I think this could have either been worked in better, or done away with entirely--the plot could have easily worked without a supernatural element if other bits had been tweaked just a tiny bit.

However, I would like to note that these are very minor complaints, and I really, really enjoyed this title.  Randall has a companion novel out, The Stranger's Obituary, that I will definitely pick up the next time I fall into a reading slump, because I have no doubts it will be just as good as this one.

A very solid 4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Wedding Wager - Regina Duke (Colorado Billionaires #1)

The Wedding Wager (Colorado Billionaires, #1)
As I mentioned recently, I don't read a lot of contemporary romances, because something about them rubs me the wrong way.  However, I was so delighted with Royally Screwed that, when a few more popped up in some of my newsletters, I went for them.  The Wedding Wager is the first of those, and while it wasn't bad, was left a little disappointed.

This is classified as a "clean romance," and it is that, which is fine, but it was something else, too--flat.  I didn't think it would be, because it had a strong start and really charming main characters, and a good central premise, but it lacked a strong conflict which made the whole thing feel a little bland.

So, here's the premise.  Kevin's mother's family has a very large trust that includes a ranch in Colorado, and Kevin can only inherit it if he marries before his 25th birthday.  If he doesn't inherit, his mother worries that Kevin's conniving father will manage to seize the trust and pretty much spend it all and sell the ranch.  So, Kevin needs to find someone to marry in less than a month.  Meanwhile, Megan has just gotten out of the hospital after a six month stay.  During a move to a new city, she was in a car accident that necessitated a surgery, and then got repeated infections so she couldn't leave.  Jobless, homeless, and pretty much money-less, Megan sees an ad in the newspaper for someone looking for a secretary.  She calls the number, and soon enough she's signing on to marry Kevin--in exchange for him paying her $20,000 medical bill.  (Clearly this book takes place in the US, for this premise to be believable.)  Kevin and Megan had great chemistry, and reasonable doubts about each other, but I thought they worked really well as a couple--until they suddenly went from liking each other to sharing one kiss and being crazy in love in literally two pages.  It felt like Duke got sick of writing, and decided to just rush through the rest of the plot--the romance, the big "will they or won't they" moment, the wedding, everything.

This story is also lacking a strong central conflict--something that might keep the hero and heroine from being together.  Nominally, this conflict is Kevin's a-hole father, who will supposedly do anything to keep Kevin from inheriting.  First, he will not actually do anything.  It's hinted at, more than once, that he'd be willing to resort to violence to keep Megan from marrying Kevin, but in reality all he does is say a few mean things.  Second, his big "threat," that he'll have Megan reported for her medical debts, is laughable at the very best.  Megan has $20,000 in medical bills for a six month stay--a paltry amount, considering one week in a local  hospital almost cost my boyfriend more than triple that amount.  And I graduated college with almost five times that amount in student debt, so I couldn't really feel any empathy for Megan.  There are payment plans for all of that sort of stuff, and with any decent job, she would have been completely fine.  It's made out like she couldn't handle being in debt, but any reasonable adult knows that debt happens and you have to be able to manage it, so I couldn't sympathize with her on that one.  Third, nothing ever happens with the doubts Kevin and Megan have about each other; Kevin worries that Megan might be trying to blackmail him, but he never really thinks that, and Megan worries that Kevin won't actually pay her medical bill, but she never really has reason to doubt that he will.  Even the big "crisis" moment lasts about five pages and is then over, all hunky-dory.  Fourth, Kevin's father clearly doesn't have a legal leg to stand on from page one (protesting that it's not a "real marriage" because they agreed to it for financial reasons; I don't see why this needed to be kept a secret, because clearly it's legal even if it was arranged) which makes that a moot point suspense-wise.

The characters in this book were great, and the general plot was, too, but it needed some serious re-working in the second half to make it a story that actually tugs at the heartstrings and makes me worry that something bad actually might happen, even though I logically know it won't.  As it was, I couldn't get that invested because the entire thing was so transparent from the very start.

2 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All ThingsThis was an immensely frustrating book because of the way it's written.  It's a character-driven book, which isn't a bad thing; character-driven books can be extremely good, such as How to Start a Fire, which I read recently.  They can be absolutely enthralling, because you get to see why things happen because of the ways the characters are.  This book wasn't enthralling.  It was, in fact, mostly mind-numbingly boring.  Every now and then a few pages of good character development and dialogue and action (not like swordfights, but just interaction) would come up--but then it was right back to exceedingly dull.  Why?  Because nothing happens in this book for the first five hundred pages; then there are approximately seventy-five pages of plot, which emerge from precisely nowhere, and then it's back to boredom until the end.

Gilbert's main character, Alma Whittaker, finds her calling studying mosses even though all she wants in life is to give a guy a blowjob.  To this end, Gilbert spends pretty much the entire book describing how Alma works with mosses.  She eventually meets a guy and marries him, hoping to finally give the blowjob she's been longing for her entire life, only to find out that he doesn't want to have sex with her.  She sends him off to Tahiti to manage  her family's vanilla plantation because if they can't have sex, she doesn't want to be with him.  He dies.  Her father, on his deathbed, demands to know why the guy married her in the first place.  Alma sets off to find out.  She never does.  Along the way, though, she does manage to give that blowjob she's always wanted to deliver, and then goes on to discover evolution.

What?

There's some beautiful description in here, but beautiful description does not a strong book make.  I remember taking a course in college where we read War and Peace, and my professor warned us that we'd have to endure a twelve-page description of an oak tree.  Anyone who's actually read War and Peace knows he's lying (the oak tree passage is one lengthy paragraph), but if he'd said the same thing about mosses in The Signature of All Things, he would have been dead on.  It feels like Gilbert really researched for this book, which is all fine and dandy, but then felt the need to shove every bit of research directly onto the page instead of using it "behind the scenes" to craft what would have still been a well-researched, but much more readable, novel.

Overall?  Snore fest.

1.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Recurve - Shannon Mayer (Elemental #1)

Recurve (The Elemental Series, #1)This is a confusing book because I'm not sure exactly what it was supposed to be and I'm not sure that Mayer knew, either.  It definitely falls into the "paranormal" category (I categorize paranormal as fantasy that takes place in the "normal" world, and it may or may not be urban--this is not) but beyond that, it's kind of a mess.  The plot follows Lark (short for Larkspur) a bastard princess of the Earth Elementals who...apparently live in the redwoods in California during the 1970s/1980s.  I'm not exactly sure why the time period was so significant; Mayer makes a point of telling us the period, but it doesn't play into the plot at all.  Anyway, Lark's a bastard and, when she's ten, sees her mother and her baby brother murdered by her father's wife, Queen Cassava.  (Side bar: All of the elementals have weird names that I guess are supposed to correspond to their element.  Why an elemental queen who lives and has apparently always lived in California would be named after a tuber native to South America, I am not sure.)  Lark's memories are then wiped and her significant earth powers bound, leaving her as a weakling for the rest of her life up until the story.

Obviously, the plot follows Lark as she struggles to regain her powers and her memories (the memories happens quickly; the powers does not) and stop Cassava from wreaking further havoc.  Along the way we get to meet Coal, Lark's on-again, off-again boyfriend; Granite, the head of the Enders, which are kind of like the bodyguards/black ops of the elemental world; Ash, an Ender specifically in the employ of Cassava; and Griffin, a weird shapeshifter/something that lives on the edge of Elemental territory.  There's also a prophecy involved.  Of course.

Okay, so here are the confusing bits.  The humans of the world and the elementals don't seem to have much to do with each other, but do work together?  This isn't really ever explained, just mentioned in passing.  So do humans actually know about the elementals or not?  And the elementals seem like they're just humans with super powers?  Are they or aren't they?  The difference is never explained.  Lark and the other elementals talk like they're modern-day teenagers, which they're not.  The entire plot of the book is pretty much laid out in the first few pages with the flashback, so what's the point of all the mystery later on, all the to-ing and fro-ing?  What, exactly, is Ash's role?  Originally it seems like he might develop into a love interest (because Coal clearly isn't a long-term love interest for the series) especially a little later into the book, but that never happens.  How does Griffin fit in to everything?  He's an outcast, not an elemental, but he can shapeshift--which is something that only the strongest elementals can do.  Lark can only access her powers in life-or-death situations, except when she can access parts of them all the time, and can't access them at all in life-or-death situations.

The story jumps from one point to another without much in-between, and it really feels like Mayer didn't think out her plot beforehand--she just went with it, and never went back to see if it needed adjustments in plot or pacing, which it does.  As soon as something happens, it's completely discarded, never to come back and affect the rest of the plot.  It's full of contradictions and things that could have easily been better fleshed out, but weren't.  The time period and setting appear to be deliberately chosen but have absolutely no impact on the plot other than to confuse things further.  I think this had a strong core to it, but it's way too much of a hot mess to be a great work over all.

2.5 stars; a good premise, because what's not to like about a princess fighting for her place and becoming a total badass in the process, but it needed way more work than it got before being published.